Observations on Stephen Williams vs Patricia Vidmar

Richard Crouch,  New Year's Eve 2004


1. Background: A Local Dispute
2. The Lawsuit
3. Media Coverage
    3.1. The ADF Press Release
    3.2. PR as Journalism
4. Effects on School and Community
5. General Comments on Religion in School
    5.1. Freedom of speech and teachers
    5.2. Diversity vs free speech
    5.3. Prayer in school

There are two aspects of this story. The first is a purely local  dispute about whether a fifth-grade teacher was overstepping the mark  in expressing personal views in the classroom, and whether the  principal's response to a number of parental complaints about this was balanced  and appropriate. The second aspect is the is the way that this local  dispute was blown up into a national issue only tangentially associated with the local dispute, and the inaccurate reporting accompanying this.

1. Background: A Local Dispute

The dispute is currently the subject of a lawsuit. Cupertino Union School  District have been reserving comment on their side of the story until  the case comes to court, and their response to the verified complaint  is scheduled for January 14th. Without being in a position to  pre-judge the legal outcome, the lawsuit appears to have no  justification and little merit.

The background events to the suit are relatively insignificant to anyone outside the immediate school community. A number of  parents complained about teacher Stephen Williams inappropriately advocating his own religious views in class. Towards the end of the school year the  principal, Patricia Vidmar, took the step of reviewing Williams' lesson  plans and supplemental handouts. Whether lessons were modified because of religious content,  age-inappropriateness, or for other reasons is  not currently known. Williams did not feel fairly treated, and took the matter further. As far as one can determine, the grievance was not taken through the standard channels (California Teachers Association,  complaint to the Board of Education), though exact information is not  available to the general public. Instead a verified complaint was  lodged with the Federal District Court, by-passing normal remedies.

How many complaints were made by parents? The full number has not been  disclosed, since it is a confidential personnel matter. However, at least  three parents (out of a class of 28) are known to have complained to the principal over the course of last year. At least one of these was  a written complaint; others were made verbally either by phone or in  meetings. A number of other parents are known to have been deeply concerned, but did not complain. It should be emphasized that 3 is a  lower bound on the number of complaints --- many people are now  anxious to maintain a low profile on this issue. There is also reason to believe that similar concerns had been voiced in the previous school year. In addition to  complaints, some 30-40 parents of fourth-grade students filed explicit  requests for their children not to be placed in Stephen Williams'  class this year.

Was Stephen Williams proselytizing? This is certainly what the  complaints alleged; whether the complaints were justified should now  be something for the courts to determine. However, a variety of parents from different backgrounds, Christian and non-Christian, do believe that Williams had crossed the bounds of appropriate advocacy. Some were also concerned that the amount of time spent on  religious topics was putting his class behind on core  subjects. (This is hard to judge though, as teachers are free to vary  the order in which they teach material throughout the year.)

Was Stephen Williams singled out because of his Christianity? This is  unlikely. He is far from being the only Christian teacher in the  school, and is not even the only professed Christian teaching fifth-grade  history. These other Christian teachers were not subject to similar  complaints or lesson reviews. A general pattern of discrimination  against Christianity also seems unlikely, given that teachers Stephen Williams  and Donna Axelson were given permission by the principal to start a Good  News Club on school premises. If Williams was singled out for anything, it was for concerns about his teaching methods and not for  his religious background.

Did principal Patricia Vidmar act inappropriately? Again, this should  now be for the courts to determine. But Vidmar is an experienced and  conscientious principal, with a reputation for fiercely protecting the  interests of her teachers. There is little reason to doubt that she  was handling this case with her usual care and fairness.  And it bears  repeating that we do not know whether lessons were modified in  response to parental complaints and because of religious content, or  for other pedagogical reasons.

In short, Williams had scant justification for filing a  lawsuit. Whether or not his case has any merit, he could have pursued  other local and internal remedies before filing a lawsuit and making this dispute part of the national debate on religion in schools.

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2. The Lawsuit

The lawsuit is being handled for Stephen Williams by the Alliance  Defense Fund, an Arizona-based legal group whose mission is to defend  "the right to hear and speak the Truth through strategy, training,  funding and litigation" in response to "challenges to people of faith  to live and proclaim the Gospel." In 2003, the ADF received  $16,474,818 from donors, more than covering their $2,003,654 in  General & Administrative expenses. Since 2001, the ADF has been  targeting public schools with lawsuits. As Mike Johnson of the ADF  told the Baptist Press News (12/20/04), "The school ground is the  battleground now in the culture war when it comes to religious  expression. Teachers are in the crosshairs."

The lawsuit alleges violation of Mr. Williams 1st and 14th Amendment  rights, and somewhat unusually names Patricia Vidmar and other members  of the Cupertino Union Board of Education individually as defendants. The lawsuit is dissected in some detail in  http://www.eriposte.com/philosophy/fundamentalism/stevenscreek.htm.  But in brief, even discounting the procedural fact that the plaintiff  did not pursue alternative remedies before filing, the suit appears frivolous.

The suit makes four main charges.

1. The charge of violation of the equal protection clause of the  Constitution presupposes that Williams was singled out for special  treatment because of his Christianity. But as the lawsuit acknowledges, other fifth grade teachers (which includes other Christian teachers) were not subject to review of lesson plans and  supplemental materials. Williams was not similarly situated to other  teachers, by virtue of parental complaints about proselytization in  class, so violation of equal protection cannot be maintained.

2. The charge of violation of Williams' right to free speech falls at a  number of points. This is discussed in more scholarly form in  http://writ.news.findlaw.com/amar/20041224.html. An additional  observation is that for a K-12 teacher to exercise free speech in the  classroom, the students need to constitute a free audience --- one  that is free to stop listening or to disagree. Fifth grade students  are under an obligation to stay in class, pay attention, and learn  what they are told. They are a captive audience. The argument is not whether  teachers shed their constitutional rights to free speech at the  school gate (they do not) , but whether as the possibility of free  speech even arises in  the classroom in the first case.

3. The charge of vagueness perhaps has some basis; it is hard to draw up  precise guidelines about what constitutes the boundary between  appropriate and inappropriate expression of personal views in the  classroom. But it is probably also unwise to try to precisely  legislate inherently vague pedagogical judgments.

4. The charge of violating the Establishment Clause of the Constitution  is subject to the same arguments as for freedom of speech when it  comes to restricting Williams' right to religious expression. The suit  also rather wildly complains that the defendants demonstrate  impermissible hostility to religion, despite the fact that the school  adheres to state and district mandates to teach of the religious  context of America's foundation, other teachers are free to use  supplemental material with religious references (as acknowledged in  the lawsuit when arguing for violation of equal protection), and the  presence of such things as the Good News Club on school premises.

The lawsuit also makes a number of statements that are just plain  wrong, unjustified, or silly. For example, (i) as well as including  original source documents as supplemental material, Williams also  included documents generally considered to be forgeries (e.g. George  Washington's prayer journals). (ii) It is alleged that in all supplemental  material was rejected because of religious references; for at least  some, such as extracts from the 18th Century Swiss jurisprudist  Burlamaqui, it is arguable that the material was just too complex for  10-11 year old children. (iii) Similarly, the claim that a lesson on  Easter was banned because it is a Christian holiday disregards the  fact that the proposed lesson was also too complex to be age-appropriate. Curiously, the suit notes that a lesson on Christmas  was not banned, despite the fact that it is also a Christian  holiday. (iv) Williams claims that he knew about one parental  complaint about one handout; either this should read one written  complaint, or Williams has not been diligent in attending to feedback  from parents. (v) Williams is described as an "orthodox" Christian,  but he neither Greek, Russian nor Eastern Orthodox; rather,  Evangelical. (vi) And the allegation that the defendants excluded the  viewpoint that the nation has a Christian history is an absurdity.

The two key questions to the lawsuit are: (1) Were Williams' lesson  plans and supplemental material rejected solely for their religious  content, or did pedagogical matters such age-appropriateness enter  into it? (2) Is Williams correct in stating that he does not attempt  to proselytize students, or are parental complaints justified that he  does, or at least sails dangerously close. It is likely that the courts will never get to  consider these questions because the suit will be thrown out due to  Williams not first pursuing alternative remedies. Should they be considered, it will in all probability be concluded that there were  well-founded concerns about age-appropriateness and/or religious  advocacy, sufficient to justify the Principal's intervention.

A final comment. The lawsuit is curious in the way it focuses attention on Vidmar  and other named members of the Board of Education. There is a clear,  and possibly vindictive, effort to downplay concerns expressed by a number of  parents and to make it appear that a single individual has been acting  unreasonably, unchecked by her superiors. This personalization certainly facilitated the portrayal of Patricia Vidmar as a national hate figure in media coverage associated with the lawsuit.

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3. Media Coverage

The lawsuit was filed on November 22nd. On November 23rd, two days  before Thanksgiving, and the day before school broke for Thanksgiving  recess, the ADF posted a press release on their web site. This press release formed pretty much the sole point of reference for what  appears to have been an orchestrated media blitz in the following  weeks. The timing of the release just before a holiday, along with the  decision of the school district to decline comment on an impending lawsuit, gave open-field to extremely one-sided and inaccurate  coverage.

3.1. Contents of ADF Press Release

It is worth looking at the ADF press release in detail, which is repeated in full below:
Release Date: 2004-11-23
Primary Category: Religious Freedom

ADF Media Relations

Declaration of Independence Banned from Classroom
School district forbids teacher from providing handouts that reference  significant documents in U.S. history because they mention God

CUPERTINO, Calif. Attorneys with the Alliance Defense Fund filed suit  yesterday against the Cupertino Union School District for prohibiting  a teacher from providing supplemental handouts to students about  American history because the historical documents contain some  references to God and religion.

"Throwing aside all common sense, the district has chosen to censor  men such as George Washington and documents like the Declaration of  Independence. The district's actions conflict with American beliefs  and are completely unconstitutional," said ADF Senior Counsel Gary  McCaleb." In addition, they have wrongfully applied their policy to  only one teacher, who is a professed Christian."

Patricia Vidmar, the principal of Stevens Creek School, ordered the  Christian teacher -- but no others -- to submit all of his lesson  plans and supplemental handouts to her for review in  advance. Documents the teacher, Stephen Williams, submitted that  Vidmar rejected include excerpts from the Declaration of Independence,  the diaries of George Washington and John Adams, the writings of  William Penn, and various state constitutions.

"Less than five percent of all of Mr. Williams' supplemental handouts  distributed throughout the school year contain references to God and  Christianity," McCaleb said. "The district is simply attempting to  cleanse all references to the Christian religion from our nation's  history, and they are singling out Mr. Williams for discriminatory  treatment. Their actions are unacceptable under both California and  federal law."

The California Education Code allows "references to religion or  references to or the use of religious literature...when such  references or uses do not constitute instruction in religious principles...and when such references or uses are incidental to or  illustrative of matters properly included in the course of study."

Local counsel Terry Thompson filed the case, Stephen J. Williams  v. Cupertino Union School District, et al., in the U.S. District Court  for the Northern District of California, Oakland Division.

"ADF will continue to defend Christian teachers against discrimination  by public school officials and will oppose historical revisionism that  attempts to eradicate America's religious heritage," McCaleb said.

ADF is America's largest legal alliance defending religious liberty  through strategy, training, funding, and litigation.

  1. The headline. In Paul Pringle's LA Times article of 12/26/04,  McCaleb defends the headline as a fair summary. Bearing in mind  that all teachers are obliged to use a textbook that prints the  Declaration in full, it is impossible to find an interpretation of   the headline under which it is true. The natural interpretation,   that the Declaration is completely banned from the school, is contradicted by the lawsuit and a latter paragraph in the press  release stating that other teachers are permitted to use  supplemental handouts without review. The less natural  interpretation, that the Declaration was banned from a single  classroom, is falsified by the textbook.
  2. Suit was not filed against the Cupertino Union School District, but against named individuals.
  3. That supplemental handouts were prohibited because of references to  God and religion is a central part of the allegations made in the lawsuit. It  is probably too much to ask a press released on behalf of the  plaintiff to present alternative views favorable to the defendant,  such as the possible age-inappropriateness of some of the  material. However, it is not unreasonable to ask journalists to consider the possibility of such alternatives, and to look on such a press-release as probably one-sided.
  4. "The district has chosen to censor men such as George Washington  and documents like the Declaration of Independence": First, the   Declaration was not censored/banned, and the George Washington prayer  journals are viewed by many as forgeries. Second, either the  district has chosen to censor such things or not. Censorship  applied to only one teacher is at worst censorship of that   individual, and not of material that other teachers are permitted   to distribute. The press release tries to have it both ways: that   the district is attempting a blanket policy of censorship, but is  discriminating in applying the policy to only one teacher.
  5. "ordered the Christian teacher - but no others": the implication is  that Williams is a Christian and that Williams received special  treatment, therefore Williams received special treatment because he  is a Christian. This non-sequitur is promoted to a matter of  principle in the lawsuit; in the press release an open invitation  is made to draw this faulty conclusion. Even if Williams were the only Christian teacher in the school, the conclusion would not  necessarily follow. Given that he is not the only Christian  teacher, even in fifth grade, the conclusion is manifestly false.
  6. "The district is simply attempting to cleanse all references to the  Christian religion from our nation's history, and they are singling  out Mr. Williams for discriminatory treatment": As with the claim  of censorship, this is trying to have it both ways. If there really  were an attempt to cleanse all references, then all teachers in the  district would be subject to the same restrictions as Williams. And  if Williams is being singled out, then there is not an attempt to  cleanse all references. In any case, as the lawsuit itself reveals,  the textbook used in the school contains numerous references to  Christianity in the nation's history.
  7. "The California Education Code allows...": Again, one cannot expect  a press release on behalf of the plaintiff to point this out, but  there is an obvious converse inference: if religious references   were banned, perhaps it was because they were illustrative of matters   not properly included in the course of study. And again, it is not unreasonable to ask journalists to contemplate such a possibility.

Even without reference to any facts, the press release is a strangely  contradictory bundle of allegations. Armed with just two facts, that  the Declaration of Independence and other historical documents  referring to God and religion are included in the fifth-grade  tetxbook, and that Williams is not the only Christian teacher at the  school, the press release falls apart.

3.2.  PR as Journalism?

The ADF press release was picked up by Dan Whitcomb at Reuters on  November 24th. An already false headline was further exaggerated to  read "Declaration of Independence banned at Calif School."  Other than  mentioning that Vidmar could not be contacted for comment and that  Phyllis Vogel at CUSD declined to comment, the entire content of the  report was taken from either the press release or quotes from ADF  lawyer Terry Thompson, who introduced a new theme of political  correctness run wild.  It appears that, beyond two phone calls, no serious attempt at journalistic fact checking was made to verify  information coming from an obviously one-sided and, as we have  seen, self-contradictory source.  Technically,  Reuters is largely in the clear, since with the exception of the headline and  the first line of the report ("A California teacher has been barred by  his school from giving students documents from American history that  refer to God -- including the Declaration of Independence.")  everything is either in quotation marks, or qualified by saying  "Williams claims" or "Williams asserts".  Subsequent reporting in  local papers across the country, based around the Reuters article, was  not always so careful with these disclaimers.  To pick just one  example, more or less at random, The Cavalier Daily News of December  9th (http://www.cavalierdaily.com/CVArticle.asp?ID=21782&pid=1233)  simply printed all assertions as facts.

For a week or so, the issue reverberated on the web, with the claim  that the Declaration of Independence had been banned from a California  school central to the outrage generated, any many web sites posting contact details for Stevens Creek, and in the case of  boortz.com/nuze/200411/11292004.html accompanied by  an invitation to "Do with them what you will."  As the volume of hate  mail calls to the school (requiring additional office support, and  leading to the permanent presence of two Sheriff's officers on the  premises) indicates, such invitations did not go unanswered.  And white  supremacist sites dissecting the name "Vidmar" for possible Jewish  origins do not invite further contemplation.

The New York Times (12/5/04: God, American History And a Fifth-Grade  Class) presented a broader spectrum of opinion from both sides.  But  strikingly absent was any attempt to check facts.  The article duly  reported the school district's denial that documents such as the Declaration of  Independence had been banned.  That the school district were telling  the truth should have been easy for the NYT to verify --- the Declaration is in  the 5th grade textbook.  And given that this single, inflammatory  falsehood was principally what had stirred the whole story up into a national  debate, it is not as though checking this fact was some minor  incidental consideration.  But this degree of journalistic  responsibility was apparently beyond the NYT.
The San Francisco Chronicle (12/8/04 Battle over God in U.S. history  class) at least did not repeat the allegation that the  Declaration had been banned, though did nothing to point out that it  was false, either.  The San Jose Mercury News (12/8/04 School-religion  spotlight on Cupertino) followed the NYT line of merely placing claim  alongside counterclaim, although an editorial on 12/9/04 did conclude  by saying "One matter is clear. The district has not banned the Declaration of  Independence, contrary to an assertion on the Web site of the legal  coalition that has come to Williams' defense."

It was not until the LA Times article (12/26/04 Fire, Brimstone over  faith) that a newspaper came out with a piece of reporting (as opposed  to op-ed) that made it clear that it was not just one claim against  another, but that the Declaration of Independence had indeed not been banned.

Remember, this was the initial press release headline, and was primarily responsible for making lawsuit a national story.  It took over a month for the  mainstream US press to state that this easily checkable assertion was  false.

Scott Herhold unwittingly summed up this whole sorry state of affairs  when he began a Mercury News op-ed piece (12/9/04, Give teacher  benefit of doubt amid uproar) by saying "If ever a public entity needed  public relations help, it's the Cupertino Union School District."  Checking facts be damned: if there aren't PR organizations putting out  both sides of a story, most journalists can apparently no longer be expected to do  their jobs.

Briefly, one has to mention the Hannity & Colmes show on Fox, taped at  De Anza College on December 8th.  This is discussed at greater length  in http://www.eriposte.com/philosophy/fundamentalism/stevenscreek.htm,  but it's worth reiterating the extent to which  the whole thing was a put up job.  As  well as making no genuine attempt to find informed spokespeople for  Stevens Creek,  members of the Stevens Creek community were prevented  from attending the show in even moderate numbers.  Even local  journalists were barred, and the more enterprising ones had to find  their way in through unlocked and unattended doors.  The overwhelming  majority of tickets to attend the show were pre-assigned to people who  flew into Cupertino from all over the country. 

And finally,  a word of thanks to the Cupertino Courier (http://www.cupertinocourier.com), which has done a remarkably good job of covering the issue. Their reporting pointed out the obvious facts about the distribution of the Declaration of Independence before the LA Times (http://www.svcn.com/archives/cupertinocourier/20041222/cu-coverstrip.shtml),  but the Courier does not exactly enjoy the same wide readership.

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4. Effects on Stevens Creek School and Surrounding Community

The television cameras across the road from the school, the hate mail and calls, the police presence on school premises, and so forth have been widely noted.  But what of  longer term and more subtle effects on the school?  The most obvious question is: has this issue polarized the school into a pro-Williams and a pro-Vidmar camp?  This is a hard question to answer definitively --- no one has conducted a school-wide opinion poll on attitudes, and nor should they.  But with this qualification in mind, the answer is no, the school has not become polarized. If there is a view within the school that Patricia Vidmar should no longer enjoy the confidence of the staff and parents, this view has not been loudly voiced, if at all.  Even amongst those who feel that charges of proselytization against Stephen Williams are overblown, support for and confidence in Patricia Vidmar has been expressed.  As best as one can tell, there is universal agreement in the school that the media coverage of the case has been unnecessary, intrusive and inaccurate, and that the picture painted of the school and the district bears no relation to reality.  The claim that the Declaration of Independence has been banned has been dismissed by everyone, including Stephen Williams (who described it as a "bit of a stretch" on the Hannity and Colmes show).

As for whether charges of proselytizing are regarded as being justified, here it is best to note that there are views on both sides, with the majority of parents in the school probably not having any opinion at all because their children have never been taught by Mr. Williams.  Anecdotally, it seems a greater number of people feel that the charges have some justification than not, or at least are more vocal in expressing this.  But, of course, the actual validity of any allegations  has nothing to do with  this kind of popularity contest.  What can uncontrovertibly be said about people who have expressed concerns about  religious advocacy is that they cover a full cross-section of the Stevens Creek Community: Christian and non-Christian, nth-generation American to recent immigrant, Conservative and Liberal. If there is a bias in any direction, it is towards nth-generation Americans who are active Christians.

As for the effect on the wider community, damage has undoubtedly been done.  This is perhaps best summed up by one case. Bruce Powell, a long term Cupertino resident, asked at the Cupertino Union School Board meeting on 12/14/04 why there had been no proper attempt at mediation in the Williams dispute, and why the school and district had adopted such an unjustifiable position, one that no more than 50 out of  the audience of 2000 at the Hannity & Colmes taping appeared to support.  On the basis of media coverage given to the case, these were perfectly reasonable questions to ask; the reported details, if true, would indeed be a disgrace to the district.  And one cannot hold Mr. Powell to blame for paying attention to what is reported in the media.  The sad truth is that Mr. Powell's reaction is likely to be typical.  Many people around Cupertino probably still share the consternation he expressed, on the basis of the same false and misleading reporting.  This is bound to have consequences in the future.  CUSD is one of the lowest funded school districts per capita in California, and a parcel tax to increase funding was narrowly defeated in the last election. The chances for this much needed funding being approved by the local community in the future can only have diminished.

The school  district has liability insurance for lawsuits, but with a deductible of $50,000. This means that up to $50,000 of taxpayers' money, that should have been spent on childrens' education,  is at risk  of being diverted to contest the ADF's frivolous and politically motivated suit.  People in Cupertino should not be mad at the school or the Board of Education; but they should be as angry as hell at the costly behavior of the ADF.

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5. Comments on the National Debate about Religion in Schools

The local dispute concerning Stephen Williams really does not bear the weight of national attention placed on it.  But a number of themes emerged in more general commentary on related issues, and it is hard to resist adding to it.

5.1. Free Speech and Teachers

There is a devil's advocate point of view that says that teachers do not shed their right to free speech on entering the school gates, and that if they wish to speak about their religious or political views to their students, they have a right to do so.  I don't think anyone seriously holds this position: the common sense view says that teachers have an obligation to exercise great care and discretion when expressing their own personal views, and that proselytization is definitely unacceptable, whether it be for Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Atheism or the Republican or Democratic parties.  But there are different ways of justifying this obvious and common sense view.

Where religious rather than political proselytization is concerned, a frequent justification appeals to the Establishment Clause enjoining separation of church and state.  Whatever the legal merits of this justification, it just seems like the wrong way to go.  For one thing, the argument cannot easily be generalized to cover inappropriate politcal advocacy; yet political and religious advocacy are surely just two manifestations of the same problem.  Moreover, it implies that in countries where there is an established church, unfettered classroom proselytization for that  church is therefore acceptable. Speaking from my own experience of how these affairs are managed in Britain, where Anglicanism is the established state religion, unfettered proselytization is no more acceptable there than here.  The argument also places components of the Constitution in unnecessary contradiction, and presumes that separation of church and state outweighs free speech.  This just looks like the wrong way round: both principles are important and valuable, but if I had to put one over the other, the right to free speech would win every time.

A far more plausible justification centers only on the right to free speech.  In accordance with legal precedent, it acknowledges that teachers do not shed their constitutional rights on entering the school gate.  Point 1 is the following: Free speech requires a free audience, one that can refuse to listen and is able to openly disagree.  No free audience, no possibility for free speech. Students in a K-12 classroom do not constitute a free audience: they are under a general obligation to stay in class, pay attention, and learn what they are told.  Teachers do not shed their right to free speech in the classroom; their opportunities for genuinely exercising it are just extremely limited.  Prohibiting free advocacy of a teacher's personal views is thus, to the extent that the students do not constitute a free audience, not a violation of the teacher's right to free speech.  

Point 2 starts by noting that even if prohibiting free advocacy does not wrong the teacher, we have still not shown why such prohibitions are the correct thing to do.  For this, we need to look to the student's right to free speech. For most parents of elementary school children more interested in Yu-Gi-Oh than constitutional rights, this may seem like a bit of a stretch. But that's actually part of the point, so bear with me. There are a number of cases where common sense dictates that restrictions need to be placed on the constitutional right to free speech.  Children in a classroom constitute one such case.  We generally do not accord elementary school children the right to dispute with their teacher such things as the truth of the multiplication tables, correct spelling and grammar, and so forth.  The teacher is granted a right to quell such dissent, and without this it is hard to see how learning could take place.  But the areas in which a teacher can quell dissent are not unlimited: a community decision
is made --- through the school board, state and federal laws --- to determine what comprises the classroom curriculum and hence the subject matters on which a student's free speech is subject to restriction.   But when teacher step outside these agreed bounds, they are liable to violate their students' right to free speech.  In short, proselytization is wrong in a classroom because it is a violation of free speech.

What exactly constitutes proselytization, or more accurately, advocacy of a teacher's personal views that violates free speech?  This depends very much on the age and circumstances of the students.  For elementary school children, such 10 and 11 year olds in fifth grade,  we should assume that students will not generally be able to distinguish between whether a teacher is speaking personally or is presenting what has been agreed on as part of the curriculum.  Even if a teacher  explicitly qualifies personal pronouncements with "this is just what I think", if a personal opinion of view is repeated often enough and strongly enough, children will construe it to be part of the curriculum, and therefore not subject to debate.  Put more bluntly, from a student's perspective, they know who grades their work, and disagreeing with the teacher is a way of getting bad grades.  The student's perspective holds, even if the teacher is scrupulously honest about not marking students down because of religious or political disagreements.   Circumstances change, however, as students mature.  At university level, personal advocacy by professors is a less serious problem --- college level students are permitted and encouraged to dispute their instructors.  Of course, instructors are still under an obligation not to let personal views intrude on grading, and it is important that a variety of viewpoints are made available to students

This argument is really just a long-winded way of arriving at the common sense position: teachers have to be careful about what they say because students are obliged to take everything teachers say seriously.  The less mature the students, the greater the care the teachers must exercise.  This of course leaves a murky area: not all expression of personal views constitutes a violation of free speech.  While most K-12 students probably have a hard time believing that teachers have any kind of existence outside of the school gates, teachers do need to be able to put something of themselves into their work.  Thus few reasonable parents would object to teachers now and again voicing personal views (that they are Christian, that they like football more than baseball, that they too detest broccoli, etc).  This becomes improper only when views are expressed in such a way that students are likely to see them as backed by a teacher's sanction to quell dissent.

5.2. Diversity v Free Speech

Another common argument, certainly in a city like Cupertino, is to say that proselytization in school is disrespectful to the great cultural and religious diversity of children attending schools in the district.  This is true, but it is not a strong argument against religious proselytization, and has little bearing on political proselytization.  Elevating it to the main or only argument against proselytization is a grave mistake, for there is a strong counterargument that readily turns poisonous.

The counterargument involves pitting two principles against on another: respect for diversity and freedom of speech.  The teacher is denied free speech in order to respect diversity.  For many, myself included, free speech seems the stronger principle.  The counterargument turns nasty when an element of nativism is introduced into the mix, and there have been plenty of examples of this in the current case.  This runs broadly along the lines of saying:  the teacher is trying to talk freely about mainstream American culture, which is (held to be) white and Christian; to respect diversity (i.e. for reasons of political correctness) the teacher is barred from doing this, but is forced to talk about other cultures, other religions; therefore minority views and cultures are exercising undue influence by means of political correctness, compromising free speech, and undermining American culture.  Unfortunately, the diversity argument plays straight into the hands of the poisoned form of this counterargument.

This is not to deny that respecting diversity is a good thing; it is.  And respecting, or at least listening to, diverse views is an important component of a free and informed citizenry.  But it is not a bulwark against indoctrination.  In keeping proselytization out of schools, one is on firmer ground when arguing just from freedom of speech.

5.3. Consequences of Prayer in School

I was educated in Britain, where there is no official separation of church and state.  As such, prayer in school is not a "hot button" issue for me: I'm used to the idea, and find it relatively inconsequential.  Mary Holstege wrote an impassioned essay about her experience of religion in British education, and it's ill-effects.  All I can say is that I don't think her experience was typical.  The standard pattern in British schools is (or was, some 20-30 years ago) to have a 15 minute morning assembly where the entire school gets together, listens to a bunch of announcements, sings a hymn or two and mumbles its way through the Lord's Prayer.  In addition, there is/was one lesson a week on Religious Education / Religious Instruction.  Assemblies were large enough that if you didn't want to take them seriously, you could just bury yourself in the crowd and either daydream or whisper to your neighbor.  And if they dragged on too long, this had the distinct advantage of eating into the French or history lesson that was due to follow it.  Religious education lessons were never subject to test or exams, and were generally regarded like assemblies as being time off from more unpleasant classes.  I happened to go to a school that was about 30% Jewish. Once a week, the school would split into a Jewish and a Christian assembly.  In the Christian assembly the deputy head master, who was a Christadelphian and therefore viewed the entire school population as irredeemably unelect, would try his hand at sermonizing on a Biblical passage.  These assemblies dragged on longer than usual, but as it was his own French lessons that he was shortening,  no one much minded.  

What were the consequences of all this?  First, religion was demarcated and compartmentalized in school.  Evangelical Christians, such as the school librarian, had a forum where they were free to expound, but where students knew what was coming and were able to ignore it if they wanted.  The effect was very different from the "madrassa" style education that Mary Holstege described, where religion entered into nearly everything.  The overall result was that religion in school was, if anything, a fairly effective and painless inoculation against religious practice.  In this light, it is interesting to contrast the high levels of religious belief and practice in a country like the United States, where there is official separation of church and state, to the much lower levels in Britain, where there is an established church.  The Establishment clause and the ban on prayer in schools is in all probability good for religion.

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